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How To Talk To Children About Sex


Sex is a topic that can leave a lot of parents embarrassed or tongue-tied. But in today's world, experts say it is never too soon to start talking openly with your kids about their bodies. And if you're not ready for your kids to hear this, you might want to rejoin us at the top of the hour because that's what we're going to focus on right now.

For the past year, NPR's Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner have been helping parents as part of NPR's Life Kit podcast. They have explored how to talk with kids about death, divorce, even climate change. And now, Cory and Anya join me to explore what they have learned about how to talk to kids about sex. Cory and Anya, thank you for being here.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having us, Rachel.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: All right. So experts say there's no such thing as too young. But what does that mean in practice...

TURNER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Because clearly you are going to cater your conversation differently when you're talking to a 4-year-old, as opposed to when you're talking to a 13-year-old, right?

TURNER: Absolutely, Rachel. And I want to be very clear here, experts did not tell us to rush into the sex talk with your very young child.

KAMENETZ: No, not at all (laughter).

TURNER: No. What we heard, though, is that even when your child is 2 or 3 years old, parents can really begin to lay the groundwork for their child's later sexual health and happiness.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. So I happen to have a 3-year-old. And one big thing that I'm working on now that I've done this research is using the proper names for parts of the body. So this is my daughter Elvi (ph). She's 3. And she's sharing our family code word here on the radio for the first time.


KAMENETZ: What do we call the thing that you have in your underwear? What part of your body is that?

ELVI: Schnoodie.

KAMENETZ: What's a schnoodie (ph)?


ELVI: (Laughter) I don't know.

KAMENETZ: You don't know? Do boys have a schnoodie?

ELVI: No, they have a penis.


MARTIN: Oh, that's amazing. But a schnoodie? But she clearly uses the right word for the boy's genitalia.

KAMENETZ: Yes. This is not what we learned to do. So...

TURNER: Yeah. So one of the experts we spoke with, Dr. Cora Breuner, she's a pediatrician and author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' sex ed guidelines. And she told us that using clear, unambiguous language right from the start, it helps kids stay safe, it helps them be healthy. And it also, honestly, sends a really clear message - there's nothing to be embarrassed about here.


CORA BREUNER: And you just say it in a way that's the way you would say brush your teeth, as opposed to saying that's your female parts or that's down there. You don't say that.

KAMENETZ: And there's lots of good reasons. Like, if your child's going to the doctor, they can tell you, you know, my testicle hurts or my labia itches. And there's even some thought, Dr. Breuner says, that a child who is more open and more comfortable and understands the parts of their body will be less vulnerable in case there are predators.

MARTIN: Wow. So, yeah, there are very serious consequences to being able to use the right language, teaching your kids how to do that. But moving beyond basic names, did you get any advice for when kids start asking the big questions, like where did I come from?

TURNER: (Laughter) Oh, yeah. We also spoke - among the many experts we heard from, we spoke to Brittany McBride. She's a sex educator with a group called Advocates for Youth. And she works with dozens of the nation's largest school districts. And she told us what she said when her daughter asked this very question when she was about 5 or 6 years old.


BRITTANY MCBRIDE: Really, when a kid is that young, the question is not so much about sex, but instead about, like, space and time and - where was I before I got here and how did I get here? - as opposed to the actual act of sex and how they were created.

KAMENETZ: So Brittany is saying, basically, find out why they're asking. And then answer exactly what they're asking - no more, no less. So in other words, keep things...


MCBRIDE: Very simple, very quick, talking about the facts around, like, anatomy, explaining that you grew in your mom's uterus and that's where a baby lives until they're born. And then you were born, and you joined our family. And we've loved you.

TURNER: So, Rachel, two important points here. You heard her say uterus.

MARTIN: I know, not the belly. That's what I say.

TURNER: (Laughter) Which goes back to proper names...


TURNER: ...But also that this is meant to be an ongoing conversation. I mean, I know when I was growing up, I always heard about the birds and the bees as the talk. But experts told us time and time again, it is not one talk. It should be many talks, an evolving dialogue through the years with your kids as their questions evolve. And that's why Brittany McBride told us...


MCBRIDE: Do it in a way that makes them feel safe and that you are a trusted person to come and talk to about those things.

TURNER: Because the ideal here is your kids are going to keep coming back to you and not to somebody else or to the Internet...

MARTIN: Right.

TURNER: ...Or to pornography later.

MARTIN: Right. They will fill that void on their own if you don't step into it.

TURNER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So what do you say to parents who - it just freaks them out to have these conversations, it just makes them uncomfortable? How do they get over that?

KAMENETZ: Fake it.


KAMENETZ: I'm completely serious...

MARTIN: I love it.

KAMENETZ: ...And I have been there, pretending, like, this is a totally normal conversation. And Brittany McBride actually told us this.


MCBRIDE: Practice in the mirror. You got to monitor your facial expressions and your tone. Practice before you do it.

MARTIN: So what about the idea of consent? This is something I was thinking about. And I ask because I crashed into this whole thing one day. We had friends over, they were leaving. And I sort of instructed my then-4-year-old to go hug your friend, this little girl. And then her mom stopped and she said, wait, only if she wants to. And it was like this bolt of lightning that struck me for the first time. Like, oh, yeah. I cannot just foist my kid. I can't make him hug your kid.

TURNER: Yeah. This is one of the big lessons that Anya and I both learned from this reporting, which is, when we talk about sex education, we focus way too often just on sex and not nearly enough on the social-emotional skills that we can be building in our kids from the very earliest ages. And one of those is a strong understanding of consent...


TURNER: ...That no means no and only an enthusiastic yes means yes.

KAMENETZ: Right. So tickling in our house, the rule is you have to ask to be tickled. And stop means stop right away. We also heard another great example from Emily Spahn (ph). She's a mom in Wisconsin. And her 3-year-old son offered a girl some pizza.


EMILY SPAHN: She said, yes. And so then he gave her the pizza and then she didn't want it. And he was so upset because he said, but she said she wanted the pizza. And I was like, oh, this is perfect. I'm like, oh, but you can say you want the pizza. And then you can change your mind at any time. And you don't have to have the pizza.


TURNER: Isn't that great?

MARTIN: Very instructive.

TURNER: Right. So, you know, again, when we're talking about sex ed these days, it's not just about sex. It's about all of the things. And there are so many great opportunities out there for parents to start early and be thoughtful and really do some heavy lifting to prepare their kids for years down the road.

KAMENETZ: And kill your nerves. You can do it.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR's Cory Turner and Anya Kamenetz talking with me about their latest parenting episode for the NPR podcast Life Kit. Thanks, guys.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel.

TURNER: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ LAMBERT'S "LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.